First Congregational Church of Kittery Point, United Church of Christ May 19, 2013
Sermon—“What’s next?”—Rev. Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallagher, Pastor
Pentecost; Based on: Romans 8:14-17 & Acts 2:1-21
“When they were all quite presentable they followed the soldier girl into a big room where the Witch Glinda sat upon a throne of rubies,” begins the penultimate chapter of L. Frank Baum’s literary classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
“She was both beautiful and young to their eyes. Her hair was a rich red in color and fell in flowing ringlets over her shoulders. Her dress was pure white [not pink like the movie]; but her eyes were blue, and they looked kindly upon the little girl.
"What can I do for you, my child?” she asked.
Dorothy told the Witch all her story; how the cyclone had brought her to the Land of Oz, how she had found her companions, and of the wonderful adventures they had met with.
“My greatest wish now,” she added, “is to get back to Kansas, for Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than they were last I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it.”
Glinda leaned forward and kissed the sweet, upturned face of the loving little girl.
“Bless your dear heart,” she said, “I am sure I can tell you of a way to get back to Kansas.”
After some conversation between Dorothy, Glinda, and her companions, the book continues: “The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman and the Lion now thanked the Good Witch earnestly for her kindness, and Dorothy exclaimed, “You are certainly as good as you are beautiful! But you have not told me how to get back to Kansas.”
“Your silver shoes will carry you over the desert,” replied Glinda [A side note: MGM chose to change Dorothy’s shoes from a bland silver to ruby red to show of their brand-new, vibrant Technicolor technology.] “If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country . . . .
After saying goodbye to her friends, to section concludes: “Dorothy now took Toto up solemnly in her arms, and having said one last good-bye she clapped the heels of her shoes together three times, saying, “Take me home to Aunt Em.”
And even though she doesn’t utter those famous words, “There’s no place like home,” you know how the story ends from there with her waking up back in Kansas with quite a lump on her head. So now, let us close our eyes, if we like—tap our heels together, if we wish—but let us travel back from the land of Oz, back from Kansas, back from Kittery Point, to that feast in Jerusalem some 2,000 years go.
So, in our Acts lesson for today, Jesus has left the earth, and the disciples are among a group of “around 120 women and men, including the biological family of Jesus,” sources say, who have gathered at the “Feast of Pentecost, or Weeks, as it is known in the Old Testament, [which] marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest.” And it’s there that the Spirit—just as Jesus promised—is disseminated to all those who are in attendance.
Luke describes it, in the version of the Bible we read from this morning, as something like the sound of a rush of a violent wind, which is followed by the image of “tongues of fire” coming to rest upon all those who were present. Others have described the Spirit’s manifestation as: “a flame [that] appears, dividing into smaller flames and spreading from one person to the next”; or simply as a “wildfire.” All these images are intended to provoke a vivid scene: wind rattling the walls with a fire-like Spirit burning throughout the gathering.
Now, notice here that Luke is careful to say, that in so reaching out, all of them were filled with the Spirit. In other words, God’s Spirit came indiscriminately—“No one present is excluded from this display of God’s grace.” But that’s not to say that all those present understood, or accepted, what was taking place. For there are some who surmise that perhaps the Jews were celebrating their harvest a little too much—having, possibly, had just a little more wine than they should have had. And so they “mocked [them] . . . . [confusing] Spirit-induced joy with alcohol induced-inebriation.”
But Peter denies such accusations, quoting the prophet Joel to suggest that the Spirit really is up to something new. And so the question is: why? Why would the Spirit come to those disciples in such a fresh, new way? What was the purpose in God reaching out to them?
Well, I actually think Glinda holds the answer. Remember Glinda says that if Dorothy had known of the power of her shoes, she could have gone home right away. I actually like the line in the movie a little better: “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas,” Glinda says. To which—in reply to an annoyed Scarecrow’s follow-up question “Then why didn’t you tell her before?”—Glinda says: “Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.”
I think that’s what’s going on in this Acts lesson today. Jesus had told those following him, that they had what they needed to keep Jesus’ message alive, and that the Spirit would come to be their advocate, their helper, to make that happen. But like so many of the things that Jesus told them, it fell on deaf ears—they didn’t, or maybe they couldn’t, understand or believe it. They needed to learn it for themselves to understand. Cue the Spirit in the rush of a violent wind—an experience which gives the disciples no choice but to believe that Jesus’ words are true.
Now here’s where I think Luke gets the story wrong. He seems to suggest that it was then—on Pentecost—that the Spirit gave them the gifts to do this work. In other words, that’s akin to saying that they didn’t have the gifts before that festival. I disagree. I think they had those gifts all along—God given from the time of their births.
I think the Spirit, then, comes, as a blessing, to identify and awaken those gifts within—showing all those gathered how the gifts they already possess are just the ones needed to meet the needs of the world. And to the extent that they allowed that Spirit to swirl within—not denying it, or limiting it, or mocking it—those gifts would be called forth and utilized. And clearly that’s what happened—the Spirit was allowed to swirl wildly—otherwise we wouldn’t be here today!
Can you imagine, for a moment, if we allowed that Pentecost scene to happen here today? Can you imagine if we actually believed that we have within us, already, the gifts we need to spread Jesus’ message, to make God’s vision for the world a reality, to be the church the world needs us to be—that we have within us the gifts we need to make all that we dream for this world possible?
That would be to say that the change we want to see in this world is not some far-off pipe dream, it’s not some mystery we need to figure out, it’s not some puzzle to solve. It’s here, now, in all of us, ready to be acted on if we are willing to throw open the doors of this sanctuary and raise high the windows of our souls to allow the winds of the Spirit to blow as wildly as they might choose, and then be courageous enough to go wherever those winds might lead.
In fact, we might just come to church on Sundays adventurously expectant as that Romans text suggests, greeting the new possibilities the Spirit might be ready to draw out from us with, as Eugene Peterson writes, “a child-like “What’s next Papa?” We might just sit on the edge of our seats, eagerly awaiting however that blessing from God might come to us—in the rush of a wild wind, in a flickering flame of fire, in a word spoken, in a challenge preached, in the prayer of a pew-mate, in the dousing of baptismal water, or in watching another, like Evelyn, be so blessed. And we might truly believe that our gifts, can make a difference.
And we might just find out, that in so doing, we look a little like Mikey.
Now some of you, I know, will remember Mikey. Mikey is a young boy I baptized about nine years ago. Mikey was two years old when he was baptized and Mikey was, how shall we put this, an energetic child!
I remember well the moments leading up to his baptism. Mikey was having a real hard time sitting still in his pew, and I recall that his energy did not dissipate when he arrived up front. Throughout the entire time leading up to the act baptism, Mikey was squirming in his mother’s arms. And then came the time for her to hand him to me.
Now mind you, this was before Kristen and I had Noah and Jacob, so I was a relative novice at holding a child—let alone a squirming, energetic one. And so I struggled mightily with Mikey. As I put the water on his head, blessed him, and said the prayer over him, Mikey was twisting and turning in my arms like a fish out of water.
Mercifully, I made it through the baptism prayer without dropping him. Breathing a huge sigh of relief—and figuring that we were in the clear at that point—I set Mikey down, and that’s when things got really interesting. For no sooner did I release Mikey from my grip, than did he race down the aisle, turn the corner around the back pew, and bolt out the back door as fast as he could run. His awestruck mother, if I recall, after recovering from her shock, was right at his heels, trailing him out the door.
Now I can’t tell you what happened after that. I can’t recall if Mikey let me parade him around the church, as I did with Evelyn this morning, or not. But I can tell you one thing: Mikey understood baptism and Pentecost and the work of the Spirit better than any seminary professor I ever had.
He came to church, received the blessing of the Spirit, knew that God had a job for him to do, and couldn’t wait to use his gifts to get started. My friends, the world will be a much better place if, on this Pentecost Sunday, we do the same. Amen.
© 2013 by Rev. Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallagher, All Rights Reserved.
First Congregational Church of Kittery Point, United Church of Christ December 16, 2012
Sermon—“Magnifying God”—Rev. Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallagher, Pastor
Advent III; Based on: Luke 1:39-55; Written in the aftermath of the tragedy of Newtown, CT
I had a sermon for today. But this isn’t it. The sermon I wrote is sitting in my office on my desk. It was a good one, actually—one that I was excited to preach when I hit print on my computer at about 10:30 a.m. on Friday morning. But then everything changed. I turned on the news. My mouth gaped in horror. My eyes filled with tears. My head shook back and forth, back and forth, as if I might be able to erase what had happened if I shook it enough. But nothing erased. So I prayed prayers that there were no words for and my eyes filled with more tears.
Suddenly those words that I had labored over this week on those pages didn’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing seemed to matter any more than getting home, seeing my family, and hugging them tight.
I knew then that I needed a new sermon for this morning. But I couldn’t write one. I’m the paid spiritual leader of this church, so you would think that I could sermonize on anything. But on that night I was as shaken and broken and heartsick as any father in America. And really, what meaningful words can be said about 20 children and 8 adults who were killed in a morning of senseless violence?
So I chose not to write a sermon today. Instead, I wrote a letter to my boys that I’d like to share with you.
Dear Noah and Jacob,
You won’t be reading this letter for a long time. In fact, I wish you would never have to read this; but I fear that some day you will. When we went out to dinner on Friday night to support your classmates who don’t have enough food at home to eat, you didn’t realize the irony of doing something to benefit families in need, because you hadn’t seen the television or listened to the radio. We wouldn’t let you. It was our way of trying to keep you sheltered from a world that many days I wish I could be sheltered from. Friday took away too much from me, I couldn’t let it take away your innocence as well.
You see, on Friday, December 14, 2012, a gunman went into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and started shooting. He shot his mother at home first. He shot the principal and teachers and staff. He shot classrooms full of students. And people died—28 of them, in fact—including the gunman himself. I don’t know why he did it. They never gave a reason, but even if they had, there’s no way it would have made sense.
The news coverage all day was awful. They showed children racing out of the school with tears streaming down their faces. They showed fear-stricken parents sprinting towards the school to get information about the children they had just dropped off, or put on the bus that morning with a kiss, assuming that it was going to be just another day. Then to my disbelief, they interviewed the kids who came out. They asked them questions like: “Were you scared?” “Did you see anyone get shot?” And I couldn’t decide if I was madder at the reporters or the media or a world in which scenes like this are, unfortunately, not infrequent occurrences.
I opened up Facebook and Twitter. Nearly every post said something about the tragedy. People were offering their prayers, sharing their incredulity, admitting that their kids were getting away with more than usual that day because they couldn’t bear to discipline them—they just wanted to hold them tight. (Incidentally, Noah, that’s probably why you got that Hershey’s kiss before dinner. You wondered why we let you have it, and we just never answered.)
I cried many tears that afternoon. Some while reading those posts, some while driving in the car, some while watching the television, some while watching the two of you, many while writing this letter. I knew that we were bringing you up in a world that was different than the one your mother and I grew up in, but it really hit me how different it had become.
I’ve never shared this with anyone before, but when I was a kid I used to get nervous about going to school sometimes. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence then, and I’d think about the bigger kids, the kids who were known to pick on quiet underclassmen like me who just tried to mind our own business, and I’d get nervous about what might happen. But I remembering saying to myself, “What’s the worst they can do to me? It’s not like they could kill me or anything.” And then I’d laugh off my fears as being unfounded and head to school. I think some of the tears I cried were mourning the fact that you’ll never know the luxury that I did—that you’ll never be able to say what I said with confidence that it would be true, because the world is different now.
That night I knew I needed to write a sermon about what happened. But that never happened, because all I could get out was this letter to you.
The scripture lesson for the week that I was supposed to preach on was Mary’s Magnificat. That’s just a fancy word that means magnify. It comes in Luke’s gospel right after Mary has been visited by the angel Gabriel and learned that she is going to give birth to a baby: you know, Jesus.
Now, Mary was in a tough spot. She was young, poor, and didn’t have a husband yet—all of which was going to make life difficult for her. Not only that, but she was wrestling with this idea—a message that came from that angel—that this baby she was carrying was anything but ordinary.
So what did she do? She did exactly what many of us wanted to do that day. She took off. She left Nazareth, where she was living, in search of her cousin Elizabeth because she knew she needed to talk to somebody about what was happening to her—about having a baby in less than ideal circumstances (you see, Elizabeth understood that because she was having a baby while she was very old—even older than Mommy and I!).
So Mary saw Elizabeth, and you know what Elizabeth said to her? She said, “Mary, you are blessed among women.” She said that even though things were looking bad for Mary at that moment, that God was still doing something special in her life. And that led Mary to sing a song—a song of joy when she was in a pretty joy-less mood. And her song said, “I have looked at God closely—I have magnified God as if God were under a microscope—and what I have seen is that God is with me, and at work in my life, even though things are really, really hard now, and even though I don’t understand it all. And that is enough for me to sing God’s praises.”
And you know, that’s what I wanted to say to that friend of mine who posted on Facebook that he doesn’t believe there’s a God because God wouldn’t allow something like that shooting to happen. I wanted to say: “Don’t you see, God didn’t allow this to happen. God didn’t allow 28 people to be killed two weeks before Christmas. And God didn’t cause that to happen either. God didn’t cause families to have empty places at Christmas dinner tables and presents that will never be opened and parents that will cry themselves to sleep for the rest of their lives so that God could have a few more angels in heaven. No, God didn’t allow that to happen and God didn’t cause that to happen—because that kind of God would be sadistic and mean and cruel and not worth anyone’s breath, let alone their time to worship. No, you’ve got it all wrong,” I wanted to say.
That’s what I wanted to tell him, but I wasn’t sure that he’d believe that God was working in spite of the horrific violence. I wasn’t sure that he’d see that God was the one steadying the shoulders of those parents who got the worst news any parent could ever get. I wasn’t sure that he’d believe that God’s arms were the arms that reached out and held children blessed enough to be tucked into their beds by parents that night, after they were hugged a little harder and longer than usual. I wasn’t sure that he’d believe that God could be working even in a tragedy as horrendous as this to birth love and joy and hope, where there was hatred and sadness and despair.
Because, I’ll be honest, it took me a while to believe that myself.
But then I saw the news coverage of our sister church in Newtown holding a prayer vigil that had people overflowing into the streets. I saw strangers embracing one another in the cold night and holding each others pain. I read posts on line from people who admitted that they were not praying people, but would be praying that night. I scrolled through countless pictures of candles and sayings about love and Mr. Rogers’ quotes on my Facebook news feed. I saw images of first responders braving their lives in the hopes that their efforts might save a life. I heard parents telling about teachers who dodged bullets flying by to save their students. I heard the story of one teacher who gave her life so that the students in her classroom wouldn’t lose theirs. I saw a teacher crying when she said that she told all her students, as they were huddled together in the bathroom, that they were loved so that those would be the last words they heard if their lives were about to end.
And that’s where I saw the face of God. And that’s when I knew, for sure, that even when humanity is at its worst, God is still present and working.
So I guess what I want to tell you, Noah and Jacob, is this: I won’t always be able to shelter you from the world as I did that day. I won’t always be able to kiss you goodnight, knowing that the images I saw when I went to bed were blessedly not on your mind’s eye. I won’t ever be able to look at you as you ride off on the bus to school in the same way again.
But I can tell you that no matter what—no matter what—God will never leave you. That no matter the worst that humanity tries to do to itself, God is still present, urging a different way, and crying alongside us when that way isn’t chosen. That the best we can do when we have no words or explanation or way to understand is to pray as we do this Advent season: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”—and trust, in the deepest recesses of our being, that God is there before the words leave our lips, because God is always there.
And I can also tell you that when humanity is at its worst, that’s when God expects us to be at our best—because we are the best hands and feet God has on this earth. So when you see violence happen, respond in kind with love. When you see hatred on display, go overboard with kindness. When a friend thinks that one mean trick on another kid is harmless, put your foot down and stand in the way—because that is the only way that we are ever going to break this vicious cycle of violence that we find ourselves in.
That’s what I want you to hear. That’s what I want you to know when you read this letter some day—but not today. Today these words don’t matter. Today the only thing that matters is that you hear this: your mother and I love you more than you could ever know.
And God loves you, and is with you—no matter what happens. No matter what.
And trust me when I say that that will be true forever.
© 2012 by Rev. Dr. Jeffrey M. Gallagher, All Rights Reserved.